Roman gladiators were once considered heroes. For over 650 years, the gladiator games were the most popular form of entertainment. People from all over would travel to watch these iconic figures beat each other within an inch of their lives, or sometimes to death.
The Origins Of The Gladiator GamesHeritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images
It’s commonly believed gladiator fighting dates back to the Etruscans, but it’s possible that it dates back even further. The fights were held as funerary blood rite rituals acted out by slaves and condemned prisoners for the grieving families of wealthy, distinguished nobles. Romans believed shedding human blood could purify the soul of the deceased. These fights were a form of sacrifice. These bloody funeral games became even more popular after Julius Caesar staged bouts between hundreds of gladiators in honor of his father and daughter. By the end of the 1st century BC the games became state-funded entertainment for the masses.
Gladiators Consisted Of The Condemned, The Enslaved, And The FreeArchive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images
While most gladiators were slaves and prisoners that were condemned to death by their emperors, some were completely free and chose the gladiator life. Gladiator fighting was a tradition that lasted over 650 years throughout the Roman Empire. From 105 BC to 404 AD, the games were only slightly altered here and there. After the Coliseum opened in 80 AD, the concept of gladiator fighting became a career option anyone could opt in for. Volunteer fighters would earn prize money, bask in fame, and they were also allowed to accept gifts from fans.
There Were Female GladiatorsMondadori Portfolio/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images
The stereotype of big hulking men battling to the death in those pits is false. Female slaves were pushed into battle right alongside the men. Emperor Domitian actually preferred it and found great amusement in putting women fighters up against dwarves. Women fought for 200 years until Emperor Septimius Severus decided to ban them from the games.
Gladiator Training Schools Were DevelopedPhilip And Elizabeth De Bay/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
Most of the willing prizefighters were former soldiers and knights, but some were senators or upperclassmen that needed training prior to competing. This is where gladiator schools came in. Rome had four elite training schools that rose above the hundreds of other academies. These were the equivalent to Ivy League schools and agents would recruite only those deemed worthy of fighting in their school’s honor. The most prominent schools were Ludus Magnus, Ludus Gallicus, Ludus Dacicus, and Ludus Matutinus
Students Underwent Physicals To Determine What Type Of Training They’d ReceivePacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images
Each school’s training style was very specific and there wasn’t much cross training for fighters. Incoming students would undergo a physical exam and often that outcome would dictate their “major” while in the program. The teaching methods would reflect the individual’s speed, build, and stature. Some schools also specialized in certain methods—the schools Dacicus and Gallicus exemplified and taught the fighting styles of the conquered people of Gaul and Dacia. Ludus Matutinus was a high-profile school known for training its students in fighting wild beasts.
Gladiators Had Special DietsLeemage/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
Gladiator schools offered their students more than just fighting techniques, they instituted a set way of life right down to the food they ate and how often. Their diets mainly consisted of protein and carbohydrates. They drank water and were not allowed to have any wine. They were fit, but encouraged to have extra padding around the midsection to protect against superficial wounds, the excess of carbohydrates helped achieve that goal. Even though the recruits were free men, they were shackled and they weren’t allowed to socialize with each other or speak at all during mealtimes. They were there to train, not make friends.
Gladiators In Training Were Expected To Maintain Proper HygieneHeritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Gladiators Could Get Married And Have ChildrenMondadori Portfolio/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images
Sometimes slave women would be provided to gladiators for sex but if he chose, he could be in a committed relationship instead. Gladiators didn’t have the highest life expectancy, but many did wish for a family of their own, so the free men were able to marry and have children to leave their inheritances to.
Gladiators Were Considered Celebrities And Sex SymbolsRischgitz/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Gladiators had a pretty impressive fan base, especially among the lower classes. Public places hung clay portraits of them, children played with action figures in their image, and highly successful gladiators were asked to endorse products. Many women were crazy about these big, strong, brutish figures, sometimes obsessively so. It wasn’t uncommon for women to dip their jewelry and other accessories into gladiator sweat and blood. Some women even worked the blood and sweat into their facial creams.
Gladiators Had Contractual Obligations To Their SchoolsThree Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The schools had contracts, tying their graduating classes of warriors to a certain number of fights each year. The standard was three to five “arena performances” each year and failure to meet the terms of the contract would result in torture or even death.
They Were Expected To Die DignifiedStefano Bianchetti/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
Not only did gladiators owe their school a set amount of battles, they were expected to die with dignity. As part of their curriculum, each gladiator was prepared for their eventual death and how they should go about it with bravery and dignity.
There Were Gladiators In Trade UnionsPhas/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
They may have engaged in life-or-death combat, but gladiators still considered themselves as a brotherhood. Some even went so far as to organize themselves into groups called “collegia,” or unions. They had elected leaders, they had their own assigned deities as protectors, and they would make sure their fallen brothers were honored for their achievements with proper funeral ceremonies and grave inscriptions. If the deceased had a wife and children, they would financially compensate them.
Gladiators Didn’t Always Fight To The DeathAlessandra Benedetti/Corbis Historical/Getty Images
Once gladiators became trained, they were maintained investments, and the heads of gladiator schools preferred their men didn’t die each battle. Otherwise, they’d see no return on their investments and all those contracts would be pointless. So contrary to popular belief, there wasn’t always a battle to the death in those pits. Most historians estimate that after free men got involved, an estimated one in five died men in battle; some even argue it was only one in 10. However, fights held at the Coliseum, the Emperor would have the final say as to whether the fight ended in death.